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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 03, Dated January 23, 2010
OPINION  
opinion

The Last Court Of Appeal

The media is right in giving voice to public anger in the Ruchika case

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PREM SHANKAR JHA

Senior Journalist

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In the dock? Rathore’s lawyer wife is accusing the media of taking the law in its hand in the Ruchika case
Photo: INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
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HAS THE media overreacted to the six-month sentence that was passed by a CBI court on the former Director General of police SPS Rathore, last month? Has it crucified him for daring to smile as he left the courtroom? Is it now setting up what amounts to a virtual kangaroo court to punish him for his molestation of 14 year-old Ruchika Girhotra in Chandigarh, 19 years ago, in a manner that it considers fit? In short is the media taking the law into its own hands? This is what Rathore’s wife and legal counsel, Abha Rathore, is accusing it of doing. And the accusation is finding a quiet, but sustained and therefore disturbing, response within the Establishment.

The allegation is patently untrue. The anger to which the media has given a voice is born of the realisation that the State has somehow been hijacked by criminals. As a result, those whose duty is to protect the people have become their oppressors. The trivial sentence passed on Rathore is the last of a succession of reminders of this disturbing development. The media have become the messengers of the public. That is why an effort is now being mounted to shoot it. The briefest description of the Ruchika case will suffice to show how our supposed guardians have become our oppressors.

Rathore misbehaved with Ruchika in August 1990. Her friend Aradhana Prakash witnessed the molestation and the two families lodged a complaint. The police refused to register an FIR, so they made a representation to the chief minister, Om Prakash Chautala. Chautala was in office for only three months, from March to June 1991, and did absolutely nothing. But neither did three other chief ministers under whom Rathore served till he retired. Instead, they continued to promote him. He became the Director General of police and won the police medal, ironically, for gallantry.

Armoured by the protection of his political bosses and colleagues, Rathore launched a no-holds-barred campaign to make the two families withdraw their complaint. Within weeks the Sacred Heart Convent, where Ruchika had studied from the age of three, expelled her, for non-payment of fees. A magisterial inquiry submitted to the Home Secretary of Chandigarh on January 4 this year has established that in a period of 20 years from 1987 to 2002, 135 students had defaulted on the payment of fees, but only one had been expelled. It also found that at the time when the school principal took this action, 16 other families had not paid their childrens’ school fees. Again ironically, one of the 16 was SPS Rathore. The Haryana government later gave the principal of the Sacred Heart Convent an award for making an outstanding contribution to education.

The families have asserted time and again that they were subjected to a systematic campaign of intimidation and harassment designed to make them withdraw their complaint. Rathore’s lawyers have disputed this, but what is a matter of record is that in October 1993 the Haryana Police slapped seven charges on Ruchika’s brother Ashu, six of them for auto theft. What is also a matter of record is that Ashu was kept in police custody for two months. His claim that he was then paraded, bruised and battered, outside the Girhotra residence in December has been challenged. But if Ashu was not subjected to such humiliation, it becomes difficult to explain why Ruchika committed suicide only a few days later. Nor can it be denied that Ashu was released a few days after her death. His incarceration had, literally, outlived its purpose.

Rathore also used the law to intimidate the media and hound the families. When Chandigarh and national newspapers reported the allegation of molestation, he sued a galaxy of editors and correspondents for defamation. He filed similar cases against the families. Eventually, both Ruchika and Aradhana’s fathers lost their jobs.

When the police finally registered an FIR in 1999, they did so only for molestation. Even the CBI refused to register an FIR for the much graver charge of abetment to suicide, on the technicality that too much time had passed for the case to be taken up. It was when Rathore received a six–month sentence on the lesser charge that public anger finally boiled over.

This anger has been building for a long time, because Ruchika’s is only the latest of seven similar cases, which include the Jessica Lal, Shibani Bhattacharya, Priyadarshini Mattoo, and Nitish Katara murders. In all of these, the police and the judiciary have connived, either knowingly or inadvertently, to shield powerful individuals or their children from the law. In each case it is sustained pressure from the media that brought the culprits to book.

The Ruchika case has revived demands for a reform of the police and the judiciary. There can be no doubt that reform is long overdue. According to the central ministry of Home Affairs, the public has registered more than 53,000 cases every year between 2000 and 2004 against the police for violating their human rights. But the number of policemen actually convicted has ranged from a paltry 26 to 55, or from 0.005 to 0.01 percent of those accused. The judiciary has a backlog of 300 million cases and no one seems the least bit perturbed.

The need for reform is widely acknowledged. But very few of their recommendations — Police Commission, Law Commission, and the Administrative Reforms Commission — have been implemented because doing so would threaten the corrupt and criminalised power structure that has emerged in the country over the past six decades.

The police have used two powers to serve its purposes. The first is the power to refuse to register a complaint. This is what they exercised in the Ruchika case. The second is to immediately arrest anyone against whom an FIR is lodged and torturing him in the hope of extracting a confession, instead of first investigating the complaint to determine its prima facie validity. This makes it possible for anyone with political clout to use the police to destroy the life of an opponent.

16 others had not paid their childrens’ school fees when Ruchika was expelled. Rathore was one of them

BUT HOW has India passed into the hands of such a criminalised political class? The answer is to be found in the weaknesses and omissions of the Indian Constitution. Most damaging is the absence of an honest, transparent, system for funding elections. This has opened the gateway into the political system for black money and organised crime. Political parties began to enlist black money owners and criminal elements to win elections as far back as the 1960s, a practice that spiked when Mrs Indira Gandhi decided to ban corporate donations to political parties in 1970. In the 2004 parliamentary election, 935 out of 5,339 candidates had criminal proceedings against them. The same was true of 132 out of 288 MLAs in the last Maharashtra assembly and 28 out of 90 in Haryana. DP Yadav, the former Congress politician who joined the BJP in 2004, has been named in nine murder cases, three cases of attempted murder, two cases of dacoity and several cases of kidnapping for extortion. Yadav is the father of Vikas Yadav who was convicted for the murder of Nitish Katara in 2008.

A corrupted and criminalised political system needed to protect itself, so its first task was to subvert the police and bureaucracy. This has been made fatally easy by Article 311 of the Indian Constitution which states: “No person who is a member of a civil service of the Union or an all-India service or a civil service of a State or holds a civil post under the Union or a State shall be dismissed or removed by an authority subordinate to that by which he was appointed.” In the case of the central services, the appointing officer is the President of India. In the states it is the governor. Over six decades, this one single enactment has effectively prevented the public from holding civil servants accountable for their actions.

That is why the media are the last court of appeal for those oppressed by the State. That is also why its freedom needs to be defended at any cost.

WRITER’S EMAIL
premjha@airtelmail.in

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 03, Dated January 23, 2010
 

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